Experiences of Nature: Origins of My Climate Concerns

By Steve Schaefer

Tuolumne Meadows

Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite

Where did my concern about climate change come from? As a Climate Reality Leader, I need to know and share my reasons for taking action.

I initially thought that my awareness started with the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, near the end of my senior year of high school. However, with more thought, I realized that I didn’t really do much on Earth Day. I wore a black armband, which someone distributed, and, to my shame, removed it when threatened by a bully.

It was really in the 1970’s that the events and resources that grew out of that first teach-in awoke my planetary conscience. I learned about recycling and witnessed smog in San Francisco firsthand. I sat in shock and wonder on a rock in the center of San Francisco and viewed and assessed the massive layer of civilization that spread across everything except the distant hills and Mount Diablo.

Corona_Heights_Park_View

View from Corona Heights in San Francisco

I heard about Silent Spring (I think I read it but can’t remember now) and The Population Bomb and saw TV reports of rivers that caught fire in Ohio. I tried natural foods and made recipes using my copy of Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet. I hugged trees and took long walks in Golden Gate Park (green, but not a wilderness).

Thinking about it, though, I wondered where my emotional start really came from. I thought about my encounters with nature as a child and a teenager, where I felt how human civilization was imposed on the planet, and how we were no longer living “naturally.”

In my first six years in Kenmore, a suburb of Buffalo, New York, I went to the park and saw trees and flowers in people’s yards, but I didn’t feel much connection to them. They were nice. I remember the tall trees I walked under on the way to my first-grade class in 1959, and the little flying seeds that fluttered down. I liked my grandparents’ grassy back yard, with the trees and flowers that grew there. I was more interested in my father’s sports cars.

shiprock

Then, we moved to Shiprock, New Mexico in 1960, in the middle of the school year. We plopped down in the desert, in a small town on the Navajo reservation. My father, a dentist, had joined the Public Health Service for an adventure and took my mother, my brothers, and me along.

It was very different from Buffalo. We lived in a small, one-story government-provided box, next to the new hospital where my dad looked after the Navajo people’s teeth. Our yard was dirt when we moved in and became an inappropriate lawn later; the surroundings were high desert. It was flat, and the famous landmark, the Shiprock, was visible through our front window.

Although we transplanted our suburban sensibilities there, with an air conditioner, Kool Aid, roller skates, and, eventually TV, we sometimes took trips in our car out into the desert and hiked around in our jeans, boots, and cowboy hats. We even had a horse for a while. I saw cactus, dry washes, hills, distant mountains, and desert wildlife, such as prairie dogs. And I heard silence.

Although I was just a kid, I remember the vastness, and the sense that we were a part of, but living apart from, the sand, rocks, and hardy desert vegetation. I don’t know how we would live out there without our modern conveniences, but apparently someone could.

Hogan

Hogan – from 1962 – when I was there!

We occasionally saw a traditional Hogan—a home made from wood and mud that the native people lived in before we rounded them up and put them in government housing. Some of the Navajos, including my friend Chester, lived across the street in Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) apartments that were not as nice as our very modest home. We didn’t study it in school, but I had a vague notion that people like the Navajos had once lived on the land. It wasn’t until I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and took a Native American Anthropology class in college that I understood what had really happened.

In any case, within our hermetically-sealed house with its single window-mounted air conditioner we were protected from the heat, wind and dust—and bitter winter cold. There were also spectacular storms, with powerful lightning and thunder, and dramatic clouds and sunsets. It wasn’t much like Buffalo at all.

I grew carrots in the side yard of our house. I remember impatiently pulling them up when they were small, and they tasted great.

After two-and-a-half years in Shiprock, we were transferred back to civilization—Staten Island, New York. It was like Kenmore again, with streets, stores, buses, noise, and all the rest. I fell right back into the Midcentury American lifestyle, collecting baseball cards and picking up returnable glass bottles from the side of the road to claim deposit money at the corner store, where I bought gum.

We moved to Connecticut and lived there for two years. My main experiences of nature there were poison ivy (I went marching obliviously through the woods behind my house) and snow, in which I delivered the morning newspaper for one winter. I also enjoyed the beach in the summertime, but it was mostly the adjacent pool, tasty popcorn and candy, and amusement park rides that attracted me, not the sand or the waters of the Long Island Sound.

We were lucky to move to California in 1965, just after I turned 12. My next real experiences of nature came from joining the Boy Scouts in 1966. As a member of Troop 162, I got to camp and hike in the beautiful state and national parks. We had occasional weekend camp-outs, but the big thing was our annual summer camp. A few dads would drive us up to the woods and we would occupy a campground with members of other scout troops, doing crafts and sports, being gross, and taking day hikes. In the second year I went, I was selected to take a weeklong hiking and camping trip with a small group far away from camp and out in the open spaces.

It was a memorable adventure. We loaded up our packs with food and hiked 10 miles out. We camped that first night, and resumed our trip the next day, hiking another 10 miles and eventually arriving at a beautiful meadow. We lived there for four days, doing our own cooking and not seeing a single road, car, TV, or sign of modern life. I have photos of it somewhere.

We lived on our Bernard’s freeze-dried rations, canned meat, and pilot biscuits. We cooked over campfires and earned merit badges. The sky was black at night, and I could see why they called it the “Milky Way,” as countless stars spread across the darkness as we lay in our sleeping bags. That summer, there were abundant meteor showers, too, adding to the thrill.

Milky Way

On the last day, packs empty, we hiked the entire 20 miles back to camp, arriving tired but strong and healthy. As a suburban kid who stayed inside reading and listening to the radio, I had never done this before, and I felt powerful.

After a few days hanging around camp, we drove back to my suburban home in Concord. I stared at the linoleum and glass and plastic in my house. I felt the difference between the natural world and the artificial one that was “natural” to me. I knew something was out of whack.

Since then, I have lived in cities and in suburbs, and taken a hike or two. I have also read a lot and watched the gap between the natural world and the growing human construction grow. Now, billions of human beings and the civilization we’ve developed are changing the earth. Because most of us don’t feel a real connection to nature, we can blithely continue in our daily lives without giving it much thought. But we have to act if we want it to last.

I am taking action because I remember the desert of New Mexico and the California wilderness, and I want an inhabitable planet for my grandchildren.

Climate Reality Leadership Training–One Year After

By Steve Schaefer

Me in the circle-edited

August, 2018 in Los Angeles

The certificate on my wall from the Climate Reality Leadership Corps training carries today’s date—August 30—from 2018. One year ago, I spent three powerful days in Los Angeles with Al Gore and 2,200 other people learning and bonding. I left with a mission. What have I done this year? What’s changed? What should I do better or more of in the coming year? Here’s what I said then.

In the last 12 months, I’ve met and worked with the local Climate Reality chapter, put solar panels on my roof, given four climate presentations, performed 30 Acts of Leadership (including writing blog posts), attended an important clean energy conference, built up my reference library, focused my auto writing on EVs, and even changed jobs to work at a company focused on sustainable mobility.

Local Climate Reality Chapters

I had already met my climate mentor, Wei-Tai Kwok, and joined the Climate Reality Bay Area chapter before my training.  When I returned, I continued my participation, along with my training mentor and chapter co-leader, Steve Richard. As part of the drive for more climate action, local Climate Reality Project chapters bring people together. Some of us from the Los Angeles training have continued to work on events and actions, and we have brought in others, including interested people who have not yet spent three days with Mr. Gore. The Bay Area chapter is now one of the largest in the country, with more than 600 members.

After I got back from training, I proposed a monthly chapter newsletter, and as part of the Operations team, I have produced them monthly since November 2018. It’s a focused bit of information gathering, editing, and processing in Mailchimp once a month, but it does get read, and helps move people to action, so I’m glad to do it.

Solar on My Roof

IMG_2443

Immediately upon returning home, I got the first of four quotes on solar panels for my roof. After four bids, I chose one and signed a contract in November. On April 22, 2019—Earth Day—my panels were finally installed. Now, the electric car I’ve driven for more than two-and-a-half years is powered by sunshine. My utility bill has dropped to next to nothing, too (by about the amount of my solar panel bill every month).

Climate Presentations

Former Vice President Al Gore began the Climate Reality Climate Leadership Corps in 2006 to train others to present his famous slideshow. Adding thousands of trained leaders makes it easier to spread the word, since despite his award-winning films and bestselling books, Mr. Gore can’t be everywhere at once. When Gore delivers the training, by the way, he’s with you nearly the entire time.

Besides presentations, trained Climate Leaders perform Acts of Leadership, which can include writing a blog, attending an event, contacting political leaders, and other efforts to move the climate crisis dialog along.

I’ve given four presentations, with varying degrees of response. I believe that more is always better, but I understand there is also a ramp-up. I attended a helpful chapter-sponsored bootcamp session where I learned about presenting and also about seeking out opportunities.

Presenting is not difficult for me. I’m not nervous in front of an audience and am a total extrovert. I just wish that the crowds could be bigger. In September 2018, not long after the training, my first talk was to people at my company, to introduce the National Drive Electric Week (NDEW) event I was hosting for the second year in a row. The 20-25 people seemed to appreciate the message, and I gained some practice in front of a friendly crowd. I’m attending the NDEW event in Cupertino, CA this year, but not hosting one.

Because my special focus is electric vehicles, I have added a little “infomercial” at the end of my climate talks, and that’s the section I delivered when I co-presented with a very experienced fellow chapter member, Gary White, to a nice big roomful of college students.

My third presentation was at a church in Palo Alto, where my message was familiar and appreciated—somewhat preaching to the choir, as that community is in the forefront of green energy adoption.

The fourth talk was at my local public library. Despite fliers in the library and a listing in the local paper, I got fewer than 10 attendees! I did give them a good show, though. You have to be a pro and learn something from every talk.

My next scheduled presentation will be on November 21st as part of the 24 Hours of Climate Action.  That’s Mr. Gore’s special project this year. He usually does a 24-hour show, like a Jerry Lewis Telethon. This year, he’s asking climate leaders across the world to present at the same time, making it the largest climate education event ever.

I’ll be addressing my company—a different one since last year. My new employer, Ridecell, develops and sells software to power carsharing and ridesharing fleets, and also has an autonomous vehicle division. I’m finally working in a business that moves towards electric and shared mobility.

Acts of Leadership

I’ve performed 30 recorded acts of leadership this year in addition to the four presentations. My acts have included attending events, writing climate-themed blog posts, and contacting leaders. I have certainly done more than the required minimum, but I would like to do more. I don’t count my normal electric vehicle reviews, since I would do them anyway, but any of my blog posts that are directly climate-related I do. I’ve attended events with speakers at Acterra in Palo Alto and written up those stories, which helped spread the word on various climate issues, including the food system and electric car adoption.

Working toward Sustainability

Last October, I attended a day of the VERGE sustainability conference in Oakland, put on by Greenbiz. While there, I attended panels, but also interviewed three industry executives, which led to three published articles. This October, I’m signed up again, and will hope to attend two or even three days. It’s an amazing event—in its own way as powerful as the Climate Reality training.

I have continued my vigorous recycling efforts, but also found a few items that represented reuse. I ordered new glasses frames made from sea plastic from www.sea2see.org. I also bought a hand-made bass guitar crafted from recycled Brazilian teak wood from a deck. These are small ways to help clean up our mess and also reduce energy use.

Building a Reference Library

I already had some books in my library when I attended training, but I now have more than 50. I have read many but not all of them. I’m currently in David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth—a truly sobering treatise on what we have to look forward to in the 21st Century. I have recently read Bill McKibben’s Falter, about whether mankind may be not only ruining the climate, but meaningful life. Books like Acorn Days, about the founding and growth of the Environmental Defense Fund, were easier to take.

My library includes a textbook called Power Driven Technologies that I started when I got back from the training last year and plan to complete to further educate myself on the realities of the way we generate power in the world today. I have books on eating clean, recycling, and much more. Of course, I have both of the An Inconvenient Truth books, as well as two other Al Gore books. On my Kindle, I have Earth in the Balance—Gore’s first groundbreaking book, which came out before he was elected VP. My Kindle books also include Jeremy Rifkin’s The Third Industrial Revolution and Justine Burt’s excellent The Great Pivot from this year.

Electric Vehicles Only, Please

As a weekly auto columnist since early 1992, I’ve tested more than 1,300 vehicles for a week at a time. After the training, I gave up on gasoline-only cars. I now test only EVs and hybrids, and I will drop the hybrids at some point. However, that means I get fewer test vehicles and write fewer stories now, as the journalist fleet is still mostly petrol-based cars. I am not interested in promoting gas-burners anymore. See my auto writing at www.cleanfleetreport.com.

2-year-horizontal

I have driven my Chevrolet Bolt EV now for most of its three-year lease period, racking up about 25,000 miles when I’m not testing another car. It has been wonderful, with only the need to have the battery replaced (at no cost) marring the perfection. Now, I’m seeking its successor. There are more choices now, but in the interest of cost saving, I’m considering picking up a used EV. That will limit my range, unfortunately, but the low cost of even a 2016 model EV makes them great entry points for anyone to move to electric.

New Friendships

I’ve built some new friendships this year. The Climate Reality Bay Area chapter has more than 600 members now. About half of them are not trained, and I wonder how “sticky” their membership will be, but at this point, whoever raises a hand is welcomed to the group.

The Sad Truth

It’s exciting to be part of this crucial and historic move to save our planet from the climate crisis. But this is not just some hobby or fraternal organization. The truth is, the climate crisis is deadly serious, yet despite increased climate crisis news coverage and awareness, most people are not doing much of anything about it.

Even I, who have attended Climate Reality Training, read at least half of my dozens of books, absorbed innumerable news reports, read the digests of the IPCC and EPA reports, and truly believe we are in a crisis, often find it hard to act on what I’m hearing. As I look around, I see that we are very busy with our families, jobs, personal interests, and cell phones. I have a wife, two grown sons, and two granddaughters. I also have musical passion, playing bass in bands and orchestras. I enjoy a good beer. I better understand now why Mr. Gore called it “An Inconvenient Truth.” Although I may understand the situation, sometimes I don’t really want to accept it.

How can we all work together to make the impact we need to keep the temperatures from climbing to where they kill us? I have considered this as I work on my presentations and as I talk with people about the climate crisis. I usually wear my Climate Reality logo cap and my green circle pin on my jacket, and the subject comes up. But, truly, even If I am aware and trying to make a real effort, much of the time I’m not. Why can’t I give up all my distractions and focus exclusively on saving the world? I don’t know, but I can’t—at least now.

At 66 years old, I plan to continue working on climate matters, aiming toward the time when I can “retire “and spend all day writing and working with organizations that directly influence the climate crisis. My current company is doing that, but eventually I will do even more. I’ll contact my elected leaders (and do whatever I can to get rid the denier in the White House!). With children and grandchildren who will bear more of this problem than I will, this is no longer about me. And it’s not just my family—it’s everyone. I can’t sit idle while the earth burns.